Riddle of the Muslim grave in Edwardian Preston
The mystery of an overgrown grave hidden away for decades in Preston Cemetery puzzled the city's Muslim community for years until reporter Ismaeel Nakhuda unravelled a fascinating, long lost piece of local history
It was while clearing out brambles in the early 1970s on the edge of the Muslim section of Preston’s Victorian cemetery volunteers from the city’s mosques stumbled on an old headstone with inscriptions in both Arabic and English.The discovery of the grave dating from 1906 baffled local Muslims – how did a Muslim come to be buried in Lancashire at the turn of the century? Ornately carved, the headstone is clearly Islamic in design with inscriptions in Arabic and English.“Oh he who is deceased and whose mention will be forever,” reads the Arabic. “Here definitely rests Achmed ben Ibrahim al-Marakashi whose soul departed to its Creator on Wednesday 28 Dhu al-Qada 1324.” (Dhu al-Qada being the eleventh Islamic lunar month and 1324 being the Islamic year). The English inscription below the Arabic reads: “Here repose the mortal remains of Achmed Ben Ibrahim of Maraksh Morocco, who died January 24, 1906, aged 60 years.” For the Muslims of Preston the grave became an enigma. No one knew who Achmed was, what he was doing in Preston and how he came to be buried in the North West of England. As a young boy, I remember visiting the grave on Eid in the mid-1980s with my dad and other family members. I also recall the animated conversations about Achmed, his headstone and why he was buried with his feet (contrary to Muslim custom) pointing west. In subsequent years, the headstone was moved to a south eastern position in line with the surrounding Muslim graves.Was Achmed a businessman, a traveller passing through, or even a pious Muslim scholar visiting Edwardian Britain spreading teachings as has been the habit of saintly Muslims and Sufis throughout the Islamic world for centuries? The Muslim community in Preston had no idea; the bulk of Preston’s Muslim community today have origins in the Indian Subcontinent, all of them tracing their roots to Commonwealth people who started migrating to Preston in the 1950s during Britain’s post-war boom to meet labour shortages. The community was new to Preston and finding answers proved difficult.In the quest for clues, I visited Lancashire Record Office, but found little. Then in 2016 – 110 years after Achmed’s death – I visited my father’s grave and thought of searching Achmed’s name in the online British Newspaper Archive. The results showed a plethora of articles, reviews and advertisements about the Achmed Ibrahim Troupe, a group of Moroccan acrobats who one advert describes as “the greatest bounding marvels of the age.”The reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Following a performance at Grimsby’s Tivoli Theatre in November 1906, the venue’s managing director writes in The Era, a weekly showbiz newspaper: “The astonishing gyrations of the Achmed Ibrahim Troupe of Moroccan acrobats have greatly delighted the Tivoli audiences. The feature of the performance is the rapidity with which one feat follows another, and the members of troupe are equally expert in tumbling and pyramid work.”Likewise, the Hull Daily Mail in September 1903 reports: “For all-round excellence, the programme presented at the ‘Alhambra’ this week stands out well. All the scenery has to be cleared to the extreme edge of the stage when the Achmed Ibrahim Troupe of Bedoun Arabs appear. They are ten in number, and it would take much to excel them as human pyramid builders. As quick as lightning are their movements, and no slips or false moves are perceptible. One of the men displays strength by holding eight men – estimated at half a ton – on his shoulders, and others are expert rifle spinners and gun tumblers.”The archives show the group travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles, from Brighton to Edinburgh and Dublin with prestigious venues like The Palace Theatre in London and local ones such as the Blackpool Alhambra setting the scene for performances.Following his death in 1906, the group continued under the leadership of Achmed’s nephew, Milud Ben Hadj Ibrahim, who published a notice of death in The Era on March 10, 1906: “Many mistakes have occurred of late, I take this opportunity to notify all whom it may concern that my uncle, the late Ali Achmed, afterwards known as Achmed Ibrahim, died in Preston, England on the 24th of Jan., 1906, and was buried according to Mohammedan rites.”In this way, it became apparent Achmed ben Ibrahim was the head of a group of Moroccan acrobats who toured the UK for at least 25 years at the turn of the 20th century, something corroborated by his death certificate which gives his occupation as ‘professional acrobat’.The outcome was a bit of an anti-climax and, feeling reluctantly smug that I had at least solved the puzzle, I posted my findings on Twitter. I only had one regret, I wish my dad were alive, as we would have had a right good old conversation about this along with a chuckle.Asian Image newspaper noticed the tweet and featured Achmed’s grave in a wider story about early Muslim graves in Lancashire. It was then Julie Knifton, a clerk at Preston Cemetery and a fellow history buff like me, contacted me. Having read the article, Julie sent me details she had found in the cemetery’s grave register.According to the register, at the time of his burial, Achmed’s final resting place was the last grave in the furthest corner of the pauper section of the non-conformist part of the cemetery (grave number 305). Plots were dug in an east west direction which probably explains why Achmed’s feet pointed west. The records also show the plot was purchased by iron moulder Charles Hutchinson of 72 North Road, Preston, on January 25, 1906. This was a day after Achmed’s death, whose death certificate interestingly mentions he died at the same address. Could it be the case been that he had been lodging with Charles or had moved in with them due to ill health? The grave register also shows Charles’ wife, Mary Ann Hutchinson, subsequently purchased three more plots in the vicinity of Achmed’s grave on September 25 and 28, 1910. When Charles passed away on June 11, 1914 aged 59, he was buried in front of Achmed and when Mary Ann died aged 54 a few months later on December 28 she was laid to rest next to Charles. The fourth grave purchased next to Achmed remained unoccupied.What is even more interesting is a baptism record shows Charles and Mary Ann had their son, Arthur, christened at the All Saints Church, on Elizabeth Street, Preston, on January 9, 1895. At the time, the Hutchinsons were living at 107 North Road and Charles gave his occupation as moulder. This tells us the family were probably Anglicans in 1895.Puzzled by this additional information, I was left wondering what Achmed’s relationship with the Hutchinsons was? If this was a simple landlord-tenant relationship and if the Hutchinsons were Anglicans, then why would they go to such lengths to be buried in the vicinity of the only visible Muslim grave in the non-conformist section of Preston Cemetery? Perhaps the Huthinsons were early Muslim converts? We know there was a small white British Muslim community centred around the Liverpool Muslim Institute and led by ‘Sheikh’ Abdullah William Quilliam who converted to Islam in 1887 after a visit to Morocco. Could the Hutchinsons and Achmed have been a part of this community? After all, Quilliam did have ties to Preston. He was registered as living on Christian Road in 1910 and also married at Preston Registry Office that same year.My tweets about Achmed also caught the attention of Yahya Birt, an academic at Leeds University. While researching a different matter, Yahya had stumbled on Achmed’s obituary in the January 31, 1906 edition of The Crescent, a weekly newspaper Quilliam edited about Islam in Britain.In his obituary, Quilliam writes, “Bro. Achmet Ibrahim died at 74, North Road, Preston, on Thursday morning last (1st Dhulheggia, 1323). Our deceased brother was 74 years of age, and had led a very active life. He was a native of Fez, Morocco, but had been travelling in Europe for many years with a company of very clever Arab acrobats and tumblers. He was a fervent and sincere Muslim, and always when in Liverpool attended at the mosque for prayers. He had no children, but leaves a wife (a convert to Islam) to mourn his death. The funeral obsequies of our deceased brother were duly performed according to Muslim usage and ceremonies on Friday afternoon last at Preston, Bro. Syed Mahmoud, of the Liverpool Mosque, officiating as Imaum, he having, under the Sheikh’s instructions, specially journeyed from Liverpool to Preston, a distance of 50 miles, in order to conduct the service. H.E. Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam Bey was unfortunately unable to be present at the interment, as he had to fulfil another prior engagement, but he sent a letter of fraternal sympathy to the widow. Bro. Abdul-Kerim-as-Housan was, however, present at the graveside, having journeyed from Middlesbrough to Preston, a distance of 150 miles, specially to pay this last tribute of respect to the deceased. May Allah rest the soul of our departed brother in Eternal Peace. Amin!”The dates, age and door number provided by Quilliam are at odds with what is recorded on Achmed’s gravestone and death certificate. It could be these details may have got lost to Quilliam in his rush to publish his weekly newspaper. Perhaps Achmed’s age was 74 and he wrote 60 for work purposes.The funeral was quickly arranged as per Muslim tradition and the Hutchinsons played a prominent role in formalising paperwork and the purchase of the grave. That an imam from Liverpool was called to conduct the funeral at such short notice lends credence to the view that the Hutchinsons were associated with the Liverpool Muslim Institute and were most likely Muslim converts.The obituary also provides interesting details about Achmed’s religiosity and that he was a native of the ‘City of Saints’ Fez, a place located on the trans-Saharan trade route. Perhaps Achmed mentioned being from Marrakesh for stage purposes, as it would have been better known in Europe. Quilliam’s obituary also mentions that Achmed was married. Could the fourth and unoccupied grave be intended for a British wife whose name we do not know? There is one thing, however, that is for sure; no one at Achmed’s funeral on that cold January winter’s day in 1906 would have dreamt that the place where he was being buried, the edge of the non-conformist section of Preston Cemetery, would one day become the middle of what is now the burgeoning Muslim section of Preston Cemetery.